Tuesday, 09 August 2022

‘Shakespeare? He was a bit of a rogue’

THE author of a novel about William Shakespeare’s “lost years” is coming to the Kenton Theatre

THE author of a novel about William Shakespeare’s “lost years” is coming to the Kenton Theatre next week to discuss the “fascinating figure” of the Bard and the role that women played in his life and works.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death — a cultural landmark that is being widely celebrated in the UK and abroad.

Benet Brandreth’s contribution is his fiction debut The Spy of Venice: A William Shakespeare novel — billed as the first in a projected series of thrillers with the Bard as protagonist.

Married with two sons, Benet’s author bio jokingly describes him as being “exhausted from all his efforts at becoming a Renaissance Man”.

And no wonder. For in addition to his work as a writer he is a barrister specialising in intellectual property law and a rhetoric coach who counts the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar Warehouse among his clients.

His one-man show The Brandreth Papers was a five-star reviewed sell-out at the Edinburgh Festival and on its London transfer.

The son of TV polymath and former Conservative MP Gyles, he has written and performed for radio and the stage. He is also qualified as an instructor in the Filipino martial arts and as a stage combat choreographer.

In the course of an entertaining hour on Wednesday (May 18), he will be looking at the question of how William Shakespeare, a glover’s son from a small town in the middle of England, came to be the greatest master of the English language ever known.

Entitled Shakespeare and his Women, the talk at the New Street theatre will see Benet travel through Shakespeare’s plays looking at how mothers, wives and lovers are presented to answer the mystery of the Bard’s genius.

As he makes clear, the character of William Shakespeare is not who most of us tend to think he is.

“My book is an historical adventure and one of the things I think people don’t appreciate about Shakespeare is that although there’s very little on the record about him, a lot of the things that we do know on the historical record suggest that he was a bit of a rogue — that he lived a slightly wild life.

“There’s a set of court papers from 1595 in which he was bound over to keep the peace for threatening to kill a man. Now that’s not your normal vision of a playwright. But of course playwrights in those days weren’t the kind of studious figures that we think of now, wrapped up in an attic doing nothing but writing.

“Ben Jonson killed at least two people and was nearly hanged at Tyburn, Marlowe stabbed in the eye at Deptford, the playwright Robert Greene living with a brothel-keeper — I mean, these people were much more adventurous figures than your Caryl Churchills or your Tom Stoppards.

“And so really the idea is just to sort of say, look, this is — as I suspect a lot of people in the audience will know — one of the most fascinating periods in history, full of rich characters.

“We’ve perhaps been ignoring Shakespeare’s character in a way because we’ve been treating him rather as we do when encountering him at school — as a kind of subject for academic study, as a thing not living and breathing but now carved in marble and to be looked at only through the lens of an A-level English paper.

“So that’s the idea. It’s a lighthearted hour in which I hope people will learn a little something, laugh a little and at the end of it want to buy my book!”

The Spy of Venice opens in Stratford-upon-Avon in spring 1585. When the young William Shakespeare’s indiscretions drive him all too willingly to London, he falls in with a company of players who are bound for Venice.

The company is part of the entourage of England’s ambassador on his journey to the Serene Republic, as the Italian city-state was then known.

The times are troubled. England stands alone surrounded by powerful enemies bent on its destruction, and on the success of the ambassador’s mission hangs England’s very survival...

It all sounds hugely enjoyable, even if the theory that William Shakespeare wrote the plays of William Shakespeare is not one that commands universal acceptance.

In recent years the 2011 film Anonymous has helped popularise the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship which holds that the Bard was secretly Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Unsurprisingly, though, despite its popularity in some quarters, this is a view to which Benet does not subscribe.

“No! I think that’s terrible, terrible snobbery on the part of the people that say that, because essentially what they’re implying is that a glover’s son from Stratford couldn’t write imaginatively about the topics that he did write about — and I think that’s snobbery. And in fact when you do the research on Shakespeare, one of the things that stands out for me is that William Shakespeare was a student of rhetoric — he would have studied rhetoric as a schoolboy in Stratford. And the Elizabethan rhetoric course was a lot like a modern creative writing course. You studied the writings of classical authors, including the playwrights like Seneca, and then you began by trying to imitate their style and you were encouraged to write speeches to put in the mouths of mythical or historical figures, and that’s how you learned about the writers of the classics, that’s how you learnt your Latin, it’s how you learnt to debate and argue — and so in a sense he was given the tools of the playwright at school.

“All that was needed was the imaginative genius that he got, one suspects, from the gods. One doesn’t know. And it’s what did inspire him that is kind of the thrust of my book, because there’s this period called the ‘lost years’. We know he was in Stratford in 1585 because his twin children get baptised, and we know he was in London by 1592 because it’s been mentioned in commentaries on the London theatre scene.

“So somehow he got from Stratford to London and the question is ‘how did he get there?’ because there’s not an obvious route for someone to make that journey. There’s lots of speculation, but one of the ideas is that he may have gone abroad — as indeed several people, contemporaries of his, people he would have known, definitely did. We’ve got the historical record for that.

“And if he did go, where did he go? Well the obvious place in many respects to go was Venice, which was an amazing city and an object of fascination to the Elizabethans. There were books about it, they were obsessed by it, and understandably so because it was just the most cosmopolitan, the most liminal city in the world, trapped between the West — Christendom — and the Ottoman Turks, the East. And, you know, everyone could go there, and it was a city of wonders.

“So the idea that he might have gone to this city, where women dressed in men’s clothing, where everything was topsy-turvy, where the boundaries of social class were less perhaps rigidly observed in some respects, and then, having been there, took inspiration from that — that I believe is a rather interesting idea and, you know, maybe that’s the explanation for how he’s able to write about princes and things, and why so many of his stories are set in Venice...”

Shakespeare and his Women starts at 7.30pm on Wednesday, May 18. The performance runs for 80 minutes with an interval. Tickets are priced £16, including a £1 restoration levy, and can be booked by calling (01491) 575698 or online at www.kentontheatre.co.uk

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